Veterans Day remarks by Rob Henderson ’18

Rob Henderson ’18 served in the U.S. Air Force 2007-2015. (Photo by Mara Lavitt)
Rob Henderson ’18, who served in the U.S. Air Force 2007-2015, gives remarks at the Veterans Day ceremony in Woolsey Hall on Nov. 10. (Photo by Mara Lavitt)

The following remarks were offered by Rob Henderson ’18 at the Yale Veterans Day ceremony  on Nov. 10 in Woolsey Hall. Henderson, who is currently in the Eli Whitney Student Program at Yale, served in the U.S. Air Force 2007-2015. 

First, I would like to thank President Salovey, Secretary Goff-Crews, and others for holding this Veterans Day ceremony. And thank you to Dean Sodi for recommending me to give these remarks. I would also like to thank the distinguished guests in attendance, and all of you who are joining us here today.

As a psychology major, and student of social science, I am keenly aware that my presence at this university is a statistical aberration. I was born into poverty to an immigrant mother. I spent my early childhood in foster homes, and later, during the housing crash in 2007, experienced the foreclosure of the home of my adoptive family. 

And, as I attempt to retrace my steps to understand what gave rise to my current fortunate circumstances, two variables stand out above all others: military service and generosity.

At age 17, right after graduating high school, I left my two jobs as a dishwasher and grocery clerk to serve my country. To be perfectly honest, it was not a difficult decision. The military offered a path to independence and gave me the chance to prove myself.

As an electronic warfare technician in the Air Force, I was charged with maintaining defensive systems designed to protect aircrew members in C-17 and C-5 aircraft from radar detection, heat-seeking missiles, surface-to-air missiles, and other threats. To this day, it amazes me that the military would place the lives of others in the hands of a teenager. Yet this extraordinary trust instilled me with confidence. It calls to mind a quote from the former Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who once said, “The only way to make a man trustworthy is to trust him.” 

I worked with men and women from all backgrounds, along with service members from other countries including Qatar, Germany, and Iraq. The military had a place for me. Perhaps ironically, the stability of the Air Force contrasted with the turbulence of my upbringing. I was a high performer, selected for early promotion, and earned numerous accolades for my service. But these external markers of accomplishment were nothing compared to the realization that I could rise above the circumstances of my youth. That I could prove to myself and to others that success is not limited only to those born into fortunate circumstances.

In short, military service was absolutely essential to helping me recognize my own potential.

I used to think college wasn’t for me. It was for other people. For those who were smarter, or richer, or came from a certain kind of background. Certainly not for a poor foster kid. Yet here I stand.

After matriculating to Yale, I thought that my life experiences both before and throughout my service would add a unique perspective to my college education. And this has been true. But, in addition, it turns out that my education at Yale has also given me a unique perspective on my military service.

For example, in one of my history classes, I learned about the progression of European militaries in the 18th and 19th centuries from peasant and mercenary armies to professional militaries. As this advancement occurred, the wealth and security of Europe increased. The combination of a more prosperous society along with a disciplined military led the bourgeoisie to regard the military with derision and even contempt. For them, soldiers were a product of a bygone era. Relics of a primitive age from which enlightened individuals could escape. It is difficult not to occasionally observe parallel sentiments in our society today.

Another lesson I have taken from my education here is negativity bias. Our attention is more easily captured by bad events. This, in my view, is one reason why it is important to set aside special occasions to remember the good. It is tempting to lament the flaws of the military or the mistakes of this great country. And it is easy to overlook the sacrifices of our sisters and brothers who have willingly taken up arms to defend what is so easily taken for granted.

I am reminded of a conversation I had with an elderly Polish gentleman when I was stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany some years ago. As we discussed travel, politics, and the U.S. military presence around the world, the elderly man said, “As you enjoy your visit in any charming European city, do not assume that its pleasantness is somehow magically guaranteed to last. Some of these states can go bad at a moment’s notice, as history has shown time and again. If we’re being honest, the American military has played a major role in maintaining relative peace in the world.”

This brings me to my next point.  Three  months ago, I discovered the secret to happiness. While I was employed as a summer researcher at Stanford, I met with a professor named Albert Bandura. Professor Bandura is the most cited living psychologist in the world. Near the end of our conversation I asked the distinguished 91-year-old professor, “What is the key to happiness?” And he actually gave me the answer.

Now, I don’t remember what he said, but it was really good.

In fact, he told me the key to happiness is helping others. Generosity. There is nothing that can replace the feeling one gets when one knows they have contributed to the success of other people. Pursuing happiness as a goal in and of itself does not work. It can only come as a side effect of what we psychology geeks call “prosocial behavior.”

Veterans take care of one another. For many of us, it is not enough to defend our country. We seek other ways to provide value. The veterans at Yale who came before me contributed to my path here. The folks associated with both the military and Yale understand Albert Bandura’s point.

For me, this has consisted of working as a mentor for other veterans interested in higher education, and tutoring disadvantaged schoolchildren at New Haven Reads. Moreover, I research thought and behavior at the Yale Mind and Development Lab. Ultimately, I would like to apply the tools from my education to help people — whatever their circumstances — reach their goals.

Beyond service, many veterans have made it our duty to stand as examples for others. And if other people out there learn of our stories and understand what is possible, perhaps they, like me, will exceed their own expectations.  

Thank you all, and happy Veterans Day.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Paying tribute to Yale’s veterans
Part of the In Focus Collection: Meet some of Yale’s outstanding graduates of 2018